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No accountability in school accountability
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Standardized testing can close your public school, hold your kid back a year or now get a teacher fired-all in the name of accountability. But standardized testing’s sheen of fairness got tarnished last week, proving that despite all the promises, there is no accountability in accountability.
In Atlanta, a jury acquitted Tamara Cotman on a charge of influencing a witness. As an administrator with oversight over 21 schools, Cotman handed out a memo titled “Go To Hell” to 10 principals with instructions on how to obstruct the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Head, meet desk. Three-dozen public school administrators and teachers still face racketeering charges related to a widespread conspiracy to boost test scores to keep their jobs and collect bonuses.
Texas finished an audit of how it missed the massive “scrubbing” scandal in El Paso. School officials prevented students from taking the 10th grade accountability test “through means of transfer, deportation, and inappropriate retention and promotion to avoid enforcement action under the federal No Child Left Behind Act,” according to the state auditor.
This was such an obvious scandal that people in El Paso started calling these kids “los desaparecidos,” or the disappeared. But when the Texas Education Agency was asked to investigate, they didn’t see any cheating. Turns out, they didn’t look. The audit found that the TEA investigators never even left their desks in Austin, much less traveled to El Paso. They relied on self-reported information from El Paso school officials and did not contact those who lodged the complaints, which is like investigating a murder by asking the suspect if he has any evidence while ignoring the body, any witnesses and the smoking gun.
Officials aren’t looking all that hard to find cheating because they want to believe the lies. The gospel of high-stakes testing requires a belief in scores that resurrect failing schools. When El Paso Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia supposedly performed this miracle, Rick Perry’s administration gave him $56,000 in bonuses and held him up as an example of what was possible. The FBI later investigated, and now Garcia sits in prison, though you can’t say he’s not still an example.       
Dr. Beverly L. Hall, the former superintendent in Atlanta who masterminded the cheating schemes, was the 2009 American Association of School Administrators superintendent of the year. Education Sec. Arne Duncan even hosted her at the White House as an example of success in raising test scores, and in 2010 Pres. Barack Obama put her on the National Board for Education Sciences.
When the Atlanta indictments tore down the facade, Sec. Duncan said, “I think this is very isolated” and called it “an easy one to fix.” Neither of those statements is close to accurate.
In May, The General Accounting Office found confirmed cases of test cheating in 33 states in the last two years alone. The GAO recommended states adopt security measures, but it turns out the worst offenders had already adopted most of the best practices. Cheating is not an aberration. It’s inevitable when you link the scores to job security. Because No Child Left Behind offers zero incentives to catch cheating, prosecutors will only be able to focus on the worst offenders.
Michael J. Feuer, dean of the graduate school of education and human development at the George Washington University and president-elect of the National Academy of Education, says that it is “morally and politically bankrupt” to say that cheating is the inevitable consequence of high-stakes testing. He thinks testing can “expose inequalities in the allocation of educational resources.”
Hogwash. We don’t need test scores to show which schools get more money, though a recent study confirmed that the lower the funding, the lower the scores. To figure out which schools are getting less money, all we need to do is read state budgets.
Standardized testing was supposed to usher in an era of accountability in education, forcing schools to get their acts together and the scores up. But until we hold policymakers and budget writers accountable as well, we’re asking schools to perform miracles. And if we don’t have the guts to look behind the curtain, we’re the ones to blame for all this cheating.
 Jason Stanford is a Democratic consultant who writes columns for the Austin American-Statesman and MSNBC. He can be reached at and on Twitter @JasStanford.